2009 Honda DN-01 - Full Test!

'Dream New-Concept 1': Riding a Lullaby

Every once or twice a decade or so, Honda throws it's massive technological toolbag at a single machine, I think mostly just to show the industry it can. A few years ago, the Rune landed on U.S. shores sealed in a big box of holy crap, a manufacturing giant's show of strength and integrated style. Now comes the DN-01, invading the nation with smooth, seamless power delivered automatically, or by pushbutton. One can only wonder what these masterminds will ship us next, Godzilla?

But even the building crunching, power-line munching, human smushing symbol of technology run amuck would be calmed by this soft, human-friendly "Dream New-Concept 1" bike. It is actually kind of cuddly.

The DN-01 is not touted as a green machine, although it somehow feels like it should, even though its roughly 43 mpg (mostly two-up, mostly highway riding) is only slightly above-average motorcycle fuel economy. Maybe because the bike is whisper quiet, or that it just works so well with virtually no effort, the DN-01 seems like it must run on good vibrations.

Actually, a 680cc, liquid-cooled, 52-degree V-Twin, loosely borrowed from the 20cc larger European Transalp, spirits the bike away via gas-fed fuel injectors and Honda's Human Friendly Transmission. Nice bit of engineering this enchanted cog box; it feels like you're riding a lullaby. If you're not careful, the DN-01 will lull you to sleep.

I believe if you make a motorcycle too easy to operate, rides too smoothly and quietly, the operator's mind can too easily drift off to dreamland. Nothing like a stiff shifter, clunky transmission and ill-balanced, smelly motor to maintain proper motorcycling attention. I also suspect the DN-01's near silent and silky workings produce a low-frequency hum that somehow reminds you of your momma reading nursery rhymes. Of course, I have nothing intelligent to support this speculation except that my passenger said she distinctly heard an occasional snore emanating from the bulbous area under my helmet. It's possible, could have happened; I may have nodded a little bit but only at stoplights where it is probably legal to do so... somewhere.

The Honda has no foot shifter or hand clutch; in fact, if the target customer is shifter-challenged and ADD, the DN-01 is perfect. Just push D for Drive and go. At stops, there is no need to toggle back to Neutral; the DN-01 hovers at the line, waiting patiently for the next wrist twist. For riders who may have left arm or leg difficulties, the DN-01 is their power-assist ride.

Press a tiny black lever nearly hidden on the right handlebar just behind the D/N button and the DN-01 switches to manual/automatic transmission mode. Just hit + to go up in gear ratio, - to go down. The tranny will not downshift if the rpms are too high. A Sport mode toggle kicks up the revs some 500 turns for a more pull, but reduces fuel efficiency. I didn't notice much of a difference between D and S, but the auto-shift manual was fun as hell. Once you've ridden this electronic pushbutton shifter thing, you start to wonder why other brands don't offer it, especially since it's been around in one form or another on the drag strip and street for years. Suddenly, mechanical foot shifters and cable clutches feel antiquated and awkward.

If you happen to like to blip your throttle at red lights due to boredom or some overcompensating manful need to remind others that you're a cool guy, prepare to launch yourself into the bike or bumper ahead of you. This will hurt. After the third or so time of smacking my nose into the handlebar after an emergency three-foot stop, I learned two things - one, the ABS brakes are damned good; and two, the better part of manly cool was stoic stillness. Flick the button back to N to avoid emasculating name-calling and permanent ridicule.

With headlights that burn like the eyes of a geisha, the DN-01 is a sex machine. Its sculpted body looks sensual and feminine from one angle, razor sharp from another. Its sleek curves cut through wind like a shark through bloody water. It moves with lethal stealth, deceptively accelerating to illegal speeds as the auto box slips silently through its hydraulically pushed drive ratios.

The Honda's ergonomics are so cushy the bike seems to ride itself. A plush seat hangs just 27.2 inches above the blacktop, so planting both big black boots on the street at stops is a certainty, except for maybe a leprechaun.

The pullback bars and cozy floorboards enhance the La-Z-Boy experience. The seamless integration of fairing and bodywork wraps the rider in a passive cocoon, nicely protected from the elements. The windshield keeps airy highway blasts off the average-height rider's chest, smacking him in the kisser instead. Passengers ride several inches higher, positioned just right to get a full spanking. Since the Dream New is Honda's rolling display of state-of-the-art stuff, it's surprising that the super-scooter isn't equipped with an electrically adjustable windshield.

In fact, the DN-01 has a pretty short list of options/accessories - heated grips, passenger backrest, gold emblems, generic bike cover and u-lock, and a curious center cowl cover to protect the under-seat fuel tank (I can't quite envision how this would work). But conspicuous in its complete absence is storage capacity. There is none whatsoever - no saddlebag or tool bag or luggage rack. You can throw some soft bags over the passenger pillion, but they would fly out like leathery wings. I expect Honda will somehow add built-in hard bags if they bring back the model in 2010.

The auto-bike's hot lines and shifty stealth sure turns heads from civilians and bikers alike. Men and women young and old, and little innocent children clamored to the DN, wanting to know what the hell I was riding, why it was so weirdly quiet, and where they can get one. From tattooed, beer-swilling bikers to the sleek, full-body-armor superbike set, the approving nods, thumbs-up, dumbfounded smiles, and occasional tossed ladies undergarments validated the unexpected coolness of the DN-01.

Honda thinks it has launched a whole new genre of motorcycle, the "crossover." The DN-01 combines sportbike, cruiser and even scooter elements. Certainly, tech-heads and lazy-butts will embrace the DN-01's shapely mix of gadgetry, mindless movement, and "organic" aerodynamics like an old hippie hugs a tree. Old-skoolers will not be so thrilled.

Grizzled motorcycle veterans will take awhile to stop grabbing for an invisible clutch lever, as their left boot continues to do its instinctive foot shifter dance. Curmudgeons will gripe about the DN-01's Gen X/Y modernism, flailing their arms and yelping that true biking is dead.

There's no choke, no kickstart, no carburetor, no gas tank as they know it, and the handlebar looks funny. The bike does not smell of oil or gasoline, the offset rear mono-shock looks like the factory forgot the other absorber, and nobody's sure where the hell the swingarm went to. And why in the world is there an emergency hand brake? Worse still, you can barely feel the street beneath you as the bike silently rolls through its speeds like some kind of secret, two-wheel reconnaissance drone on a mission.

It's been decades since clutching and shifting has seen any significant change. Sure, there's been stabs at an automatic bike before, including Honda's own circa 1970s goofy Hondamatic, but nothing that took. There was more of a nostalgic movement to return to pre-WWII stick shift and foot clutches than move forward with a better, safer, quicker way to change speeds.

There is something primal about using all your arms and legs, hands, feet and head to operate a machine. It makes you feel like you're part of the motor, and the bike is part of you. This isn't a bad thing. An intrinsic aspect of the zen of motorcycling is feeling like you are one with the bike, and this can help you both survive. When the bike feels like it is doing everything for you, where's the challenge?

But that is, I believe, the idea. I am not sure who Honda is marketing this thing to. Other than a toughie dressed head to toe in bad biker black, pictured riding the bike in the DN-01's press materials, there isn't a clue. Is it entry-level riders; older riders with diminished skills; the growing female segment; young riders with undeveloped skills; the gadget collector, weird guys who just want easy operation, or the physically challenged?

The hefty $15, 599 (and up) price tag will send many into sticker shock, reducing Honda's muddled target audience. I get the impression, however, that Honda just doesn't care. The DN-01 is an experiment, a show, a notice to the industry. Will the factory expand the platform, offering bigger displacement DN-02s and -03s in cruiser, tourer or sportbike models? Can the DN-01 cross back?

It's hard to be badass on what mostly feels like a hulky scooter, even if it can cruise at 90 per all damn day without breaking a sweat. The DN-01 has a feathery light feel, even though the bike weighs in at a non-petite 595 lbs., topped off. Its offset dual-crankpin crankshaft has been built for perfect harmonic balance, and its hushed, continuously variable, hydromechanical, maintenance-free Human Friendly Transmission doesn't flinch or lag, insatiably swallowing up drive speeds as it shifts up and down.

The handsome Honda does have some chic features, such as beefy 41mm forks, 17-inch Z-rated radials front and rear, a racy 28.5-degree rake, a two-into-one stainless steel exhaust system with chrome-plated triangular tailpipe, which the factory designed to centralize mass for improved handling. It appears to be born of an alternative Honda design school; the same one that briefly gave us the Rune.

The mirrors double as turn-signals and are cleanly mounted on the forward bodywork rather than the handlebar. They provide a nice rear view, but are not so safely adjusted on the fly. The unobtrusive floorboards are long haul comfy, but the broad footbrake pad looks like it came off a truck.

The LED backlit speedo contains a tach, dual-trip calculator, fuel gauge, clock and a thoughtful, Baby Boomer-friendly digital mph readout in the biggest numbers I've ever seen on a bike or automobile. By the way, that emergency brake is for parking. This is a very un-bike thing, but good to have when your bike slips out of "gear" when turned off, making parking on steep hills an unexpected adventure.

MSRP: $15,599
COLORS: Candy Dark Red, Black

TYPE: Liquid-cooled 52-degree V-TwinDISPLACEMENT, BORE AND STROKE: 680cc, 81 x 66mm
VALVE TRAIN: **SOHC; four valves per cylinderCOMPRESSION RATIO: 10.0:1
PGM-FI with automatic enrichment circuit, 40mm throttle bodies and 12-hole injectors
**TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE: **HFT continuously variable, hydromechanical two-mode automatic with six-speed manual mode.

FRONT SUSPENSION: 41mm telescopic fork with 4.2 inches travel
REAR SUSPENSION: Pro Arm single-side swingarm with single shock, seven-position spring preload adjustability; 4.7 inches travel
FRONT BRAKE: ABS and CBS with dual full-floating 296mm discs and three-piston calipers
REAR BRAKE: ABS and CBS with single 276mm disc and three-piston caliper
FRONT TIRE: **130/70 ZR17 radial
190/50 ZR17 radial
WHEELBASE: 63.2 in.
RAKE/TRAIL: 28.5?/114mm 4.5 in.
SEAT HEIGHT: 27.2 in.
FUEL CAPACITY: 4.0 gal., including 0.8-gallon reserve
WEIGHT: 595 lbs (wet, claimed)

It's long, it's low, it's got floorboards... it's a cruiser! They don't all have to look like Harleys do they?
Here are the magic buttons, on the right grip is the switch to put it in drive or take it back to neutral.
Almost invisible to the left is the lever which clicks it to manual shifting. On the left grip are the toggle switches to change "gear" ratios.